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The Caucasian Powder Keg

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Why peace in the Caucasus might remain elusive


By: Ruben Pfeijffer

On 9 November 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a Russian-brokered armistice that ended ongoing hostilities over the possession of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, growing discontent in Armenia over the terms of the armistice might jeopardize the fragile peace in the Caucasus region.

Under pressure

The political situation in Armenia recently has become increasingly unstable after the general staff of the Armenian army openly called for Prime Minister Pashinyan's resignation in a joint statement on 25 February, citing that "The ineffective management of the current authorities and the serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse"1.

The statement follows months of large-scale demonstrations that erupted in the wake of the Russian-Brokered armistice that ended the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020. Pashinyan's insecure position raises significant worries about the possible implications his resignation -or removal- might have for the current peace with Azerbaijan.

Historical background

Located within the territories granted to Azerbaijan after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh is a region mainly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, who, as the self-proclaimed republic of Artsakh, fought a war of secession against Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. With the help of the Armenian army, Artsakh managed to force Azerbaijan to sign a ceasefire in 1994, in which the Azeri’s de-facto ceded control over Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding territories to the Armenians. However, in the following decades, continuous breaches of the ceasefire would constantly add fuel to the animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, causing significant armed clashes.

Geopolitical relevance

Apart from being the source of a long-standing national dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh has also increasingly become the locus of Russian and Turkish power projections in the Caucasus region. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan serve as a proxy-state in this geopolitical struggle. Armenia is a member of a defensive military alliance with Russia (CSTO), while Azerbaijan is historically backed by its 'brother-nation' Turkey. This means that an escalation of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan would typically also involve these two major regional powers.

The war of 2020

On 27 September, both Armenia and Azerbaijan mobilized their armies after a series of serious clashes erupted in the border region. In the following month and a half, Azerbaijan, with Turkey's military aid, was able to make significant territorial gains on Armenia, who, despite their defensive alliance with Russia, were largely left to fend for themselves.

There could be several explanations as to why Russia decided not to get militarily involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. They may have wanted to avoid a confrontation with Turkey, as such a confrontation has the potential of sparking a severe regional - or given Turkey's NATO membership - even global conflict. Another explanation is that Russia simply was not eager to come to the aid of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who toppled the previous pro-Russian Prime Minister during the Velvet Revolution of 2018.

Regardless, even without intervening militarily. Russia managed to safeguard its influence in the Caucasus region by brokering the Nagorno-Karabakh armistice that was signed on 9 November.

The Russian-brokered armistice

After suffering a series of military defeats, including the loss of Shusha, one of the main cities in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan agreed to sit down at the negotiating table with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the terms of the resulting armistice, Armenia would cede several occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and withdraw all their troops from the border area. A Russian peacekeeping force of 19,600 soldiers would take their place and guard the buffer zone, with Turkey acting as observers2.

Azerbaijan was allowed to keep ‘the spoils of war’ while Russia significantly enhanced their military presence in the Caucasus region at the cost of Turkey, who were limited to an ‘observers’ role. Even though the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh would remain in Armenian hands, Armenia had to make some painful concessions that undoubtedly left them with a sense of defeat.

Joy and anger

While the armistice was widely celebrated around Azerbaijan as a great victory over their long-standing enemies, reactions in Armenia. were -as expected- significantly less enthusiastic. Right after the terms of the armistice were made public by the Armenian media, hundreds of protesters, angered by the territorial concessions made to Azerbaijan, stormed the Armenian parliament. They demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan, whom they held responsible for the failed war effort and 'weak' negotiations with Azerbaijan and Russia3. After months of political unrest, the Armenian army has now decided to become involved as well by demanding Pashinyan's resignation.

Peace at stake

The current political instability in Armenia has potentially severe implications for the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh armistice. The terms of the armistice, which many Armenians perceive as highly unfavourable towards Armenia, will likely remain a significant source of unrest in the country for the foreseeable future. Although the Armenian military has not yet made a move beyond their earlier political statement, it cannot be ruled out that an actual military coup is on the cards if Pashinyan refuses to step down. Regardless, even if Pashinyan steps down voluntarily, it is far from certain whether his democratic successor will respect the terms of the armistice with Azerbaijan.

Armenia's developing situation also leaves Russia in an awkward situation, who now have to deal with a politically unstable ally who might seek to reignite the conflict with Azerbaijan as soon as its current leadership changes. Furthermore, Russia's limited support for the Armenians during the war might force Armenia to turn their gaze to others for help, which could, in turn, insert yet another geopolitical player into the already cramped Caucasus region. While Turkey might be content with Azerbaijan's military victory over Armenia, they are likely frustrated about being 'left out' of the peacekeeping force. Although the Nagorno-Karabakh armistice has secured peace, for now, it seems probable that the region will remain a hotbed for conflict until an accord that is satisfactory to all sides has been reached.

This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:

Ruben Pfeijffer is a graduated anthropologist who currently follows the MA program Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. While working on his bachelor thesis in the Netherlands during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ruben gained experience with conducting ethnographic research under the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and has learned to be adaptable with his research methods.

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